The Festival of Bihu, An Introduction

By Indrani Raimedhi

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The sky gave me boundless vision
And the tempest its terrible power
The thunder gave its resounding voice
And the courage of righteousness
Armed with the voice of thunder and the power of tempest
I shall make the horizon tremble with my singing
– Bhupen Hazarika

This is the first Rongali Bihu that we will celebrate without the Bard of Assam, whose powerful voice, mixed in equal measure with the rage born of speaking out against injustice, as well as a wise compassion for human failings and encapsulating the yearning of the Assamese heart.

In the tempest and lightning of Bhupenda’s song lies also the call to countless Assamese settled abroad to come home to this remote corner of the world and see the slow turning of winter to spring, the playful wind sweep away dead leaves and the rain turn the grass tender green.  Cherished within a circle of family and friends, every Assamese man, woman, and child is touched by the gentle hand of hope and rejuvenation. Amid blue skies and fragrances of blossoming flowers, every heart quickens with the possibility of love and the warm, secure assurance of belonging to a closed-knit community moving towards a common destiny of prosperity and dreams fulfilled.

The origins of Kati, Bhogali and Rongali Bihu are lost in hoary antiquity. Bihu has its origins in the pastoral/agrarian life of the Assamese people (Assamese in an all-embracing sense of the term – one that includes all the tribal entities within its fold). Rongali Bihu, falling in the month of Bohag, is the Assamese tradition of ushering in the New Year with vigorous nimble-footed dances, rousing songs which are amorous in nature, and the heady music created by indigenous instruments like the dhol (drums), pepa (flute) and gagana (cymbals). Besides the merry dancing in open fields, in an elemental rapport with the playful Nature of teasing breezes and sudden showers, bands of husori groups move from door to door performing a kind of peripatetic bihu, as the hosts ply them with food and tokens of their appreciation.

The first modern transition of this agrarian festival of antiquity came about in the early 50s of the twentieth century when some eminent personalities like Sri Radha Govinda Baruah, Sri Tilak Das and Sri Khiroda Kanta Bishaya organized Rongali Bihu at Latasil Field at Guwahati. This was the first ever Rongali Bihu performed on stage. It has continued in this avatar. With this epochal transition, Rongali Bihu celebrations now required management skills, the raising of funds, organization of sports events, the coordination of bihu troupes from across the state holding of Bihu Rani contest, etc. This competitive spirit spurs singer and dancers to hone their talents and this gave a new direction to the festival. One of the cultural landmarks of which every Assamese should be proud of is the celebration of bihu by the non-resident Assamese diaspora around the globe. This dissemination of our rich cultural heritage is an assertion of our identity in the most gracious and refined way.

Bihu remains a redeeming feature of our lives and defines our very identity. At a time when insurgency casts its gloomy shadow on everyday life, when scams, government apathy, floods, soaring prices and crime make the common man bitter and cynical, the arrival of spring in our midst and the singers and dancers joining hands to celebrate a new beginning is certainly a reason to smile.

Indrani Raimedhi is a veteran journalist, columnist and writer. She is at present an Assistant Editor at The Assam Tribune. Her ‘Third Eye’ column has run for sixteen years without a break and is very popular. In 2003, she won the Kunjabala Devi Award for Investigative Journalism on women’s issues in the North East. Raimedhi is the author of ten books including “The Second Coming and Other Stories”, “The Concubines Room”, “The Night Journey” and “A Strangers Touch”. Her childrens’ books have been selected as reading texts in schools in Assam and other states of India. She has visited Germany, Belgium and the UK as a delegate of the All India Newspaper Employees Federation and the European Union’s Gender project. She is the mother of two grown up sons and lives with her husband in Guwahati.